History-Making Hairstylist Mia Neal

In honor of Mia Neal’s historic Oscar win (with teammate Jamika Wilson) as the first Black artist to take home the statue for makeup and hairstyling, I’m reposting the interview I conducted with her on behalf of the Drama Desk in November of 2016.  She had just won the organization’s first Award for Wig and Hair Design.

Hairstylist Mia Neal at the 2016 Drama Desk Awards; Photo ©Barry Gordin

Mia Neal knew she felt “beyond appreciative” when she was recognized by the Drama Desk for her work on Shuffle Along, or, the Making of a Musical Sensation of 1921.  She had been honored over some of the best stylists in the business, including a few she had apprenticed under.  What she didn’t know was that she had also just made history.  In the Award’s 61 years, this was the first time Wig and Hair Design had been recognized. 

The new award places attention firmly on a time consuming, unique skill that is typically acknowledge only as part of the overall costume design.  In Ms. Neal’s case, she was introduced to the singular craft when, as a talented hairdresser, she was invited by Juilliard to participate in their exclusive training program.  After graduation, she realized her new ability would be best perfected by studying under as many professionals as possible.  Because the world of wig design is a small one, she found that most in the field were generous with their time and knowledge.  Propelled by talent, love, and enthusiasm, she slowly earned her own reputation for developing period looks primarily for African American actors.  Throughout her 15 years in theater and television, she has periodically returned to the school to encourage others to follow this collaborative and rewarding career path.

Each of Ms. Neal’s ventilated wigs represents 80 hours worth of work before styling.  She begins by taking a mold of the actor’s head.  This is essential for ultimately forming a natural hairline.  Next, each strand of hair is knotted individually by hand.  Finally, the actors begin modeling the wigs during their rehearsal process.  She was fortunate that most of the Shuffle Along cast members had experience with wigs and were therefore comfortable moving in them.  But she admits it’s always a little more challenging with males who are less likely to have one in their personal wardrobe.  Neal also found that these particular pieces were best evaluated only after they’d been seen together with full costume and make-up.

While Neal had previously created finger waves and other looks from the 1920s, she acknowledges that her achievement with Shuffle Along was due in large part to the trust relationship bestowed by the show’s costume designer, Ann Roth.  She calls Roth “simply a genius,” rushing to add “that’s not a word I use lightly.”  Roth, along with director George C. Wolfe, wisely liberated Neal from concerning herself with re-dressing and maintenance issues that can inhibit creativity.  She was therefore able to fully explore all of her ideas inspired by period photos, historical reading and the original Shuffle Along itself.  

This artistic freedom resulted in highly individualized wigs, with no general back-up chorus look.  The audience was transported to a time when black actors were having a specific experience and each was boldly represented by on and off stage persona.  This may explain her triumph over the other worthy nominees (David Brian Brown, She Loves Me; Jason Hayes, The Legend of Georgia McBride; Robert-Charles Vallance, Women Without Men; Charles G. LaPointe, The School for Scandal ).  Ms. Neal could not have been more surprised to hear her name announced.  “Now I really feel like I’m part of a community,” she added with genuine joy. 

The possibility of adding this new category to the Drama Desk lineup was first discussed after members of the Nominating Committee attended The Legend of Georgia McBride, a musical about an Elvis impersonator who becomes a drag queen.  As one would expect, the wigs for that production were exceptionally elaborate, flamboyant and distinctive.  Their design clearly required a special discipline separate from the costumes. As the season progressed, it became apparent to the committee that should they include this new award, there would be a number of worthy contenders.  Taking this step was in keeping with Drama Desk tradition.  The organization’s award categories are dynamic, drawn from the production elements that stand out over the course of the season. In the past, if a discipline wasn’t strongly represented, it might even be eliminated entirely.  

It is not a surprise that the addition of this particular award would happen under new Committee Chairman, David Barbour.  Having covered theater design since the 1980s when he was a writer for Theater Craft Magazine, Barbour is trained to pay more attention to design than most audience members.  He assumed there was — or at least had been — a Drama Desk Wig and Hair Award and was surprised to find no history of one.  “Without quality wig and hair design, a hairdo can jar the style instead of completing it,” he explained.  The rest of the committee members agreed and the category was made an official part of the 2015-2016 ballot. Thanks to them and the work of Mia Neal and her colleagues, this artistry is something you’re sure to notice in the future.


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